Review: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreak, Mutiny & Murder by David Grann

Author David Grann is by far one of my favorite non-fiction authors. I enjoyed his book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, for which he is likely best known, and is also being made into a movie later this year. But I believe his newest book, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, is his greatest work yet. Grann is an amazingly skilled author that infuses his non-fiction writing with passion to bring out the real-life intrigue in these histories so they read like fiction and his newest book is an incredible example. 

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is a narrative of a British Man-o-War vessel that left England in 1740 headed on a course to catch a Spanish galleon filled with gold. Unfortunately this ship wrecked off the coast of Patagonia, leaving the survivors marooned on an island for months. The men faced starvation and freezing weather conditions until they managed to build a shaky craft and sail around 3,000 miles to Brazil. Miraculously 30 men survived this arduous journey, of the 71 that started, and were hailed as champions in England. But six months later another boat washed up, this time off the coast of Chile, with only three survivors. But these sailors said that the first 30 seamen were actually mutineers. This led to countercharges from the first group which devolved to wild competing accusations of treason and murder. The result was the Admiralty in England calling a court-martial & might hang the guilty party. 

The book chronicles the events before, during and after the wreck along with the drama accompanying the seamen's return to England. The author chose to tell the saga from the alternating narrative perspectives of the three principle figures. The Captain: David Cheap, the Gunner: John Bulkeley & Midshipmen: John Byron, the grandfather of the famous poet Lord Byron. The author researched for many years and pulled from journals of survivors along with numerous accounts from the time as material. Grann does an exceptional job of relaying the multitude of hardships the men faced on board the ship and on the island. His harrowing accounts of strife-filled sea life were fascinating to read while adding in the history of nautical terms. His descriptions of the heart-wrenching desolation, starvation & anarchy the men endured on the island as well as their journeys home were riveting to read. Though the author lays out all the facts, he stays impartial. As he states in his author’s note “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict–history’s judgment.” - David Grann

While Grann’s historical account is a stunning tale in and of itself, the author adds another level of importance. He highlights how the history of the Wager emphasizes the descrating effects of colonialism and imperialism. The author also includes much maritime history and notes other authors of the sea that drew from tales of the Wager as inspiration, among them Herman Melevile and Patrick O’Brian. I highly recommend this book as an incredible tale for fans of sea, adventure or survival stories.